Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author

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NSA Leaks, Facebook Graph App, and More:

Jul 25, 2013

Privacy and Surveillance in a New Media World

Well, Edward Snowden's NSA leaks are now old news, but the implications for communicators in the real world are just now starting to become clear. Needless to say, the public discourse about online privacy and government and corporate surveillance has increased dramatically since Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM and other spying programs.

In the wake of these revelations, you may be asking: What kinds of surveillance do governments and corporations engage in? What can I do to protect my privacy online?

Weighing Convenience and Privacy - Or, Why We Let Them Do It

We’re all familiar with names like Google and Apple. Those companies have turned information over to the NSA as part of their broad surveillance programs.

Every time we “accept” our terms of service or user agreements, we are essentially giving up the rights to the information that we transmit while using these largely free services. In short, the underlying argument is that we give up some of those rights for the pleasure and convenience of these free services and that the information that is vacuumed up is needed to help track user engagement to improve service and to target advertising, which helps make those companies profitable.

This shouldn’t be too surprising – after all, there is no such thing as a free lunch (or Tweet, status update, pin, like, or email). This becomes potentially problematic since companies based in the U.S., like Google and Apple, are then compelled to turn over information requested by the NSA because of the power of FISA court decisions and subpoenas.

There are other names that are less familiar - names like: Abine, DuckDuckGo, and FoxyProxy (and more I will discuss below). These are names of much less profitable (often because they operate under an open source model) entities that exist so that users can exercise more control over what information of theirs is tracked and logged. Since many of these services do not ever log user information or instead they encrypt it before it gets uploaded to their server, even if the NSA came a knockin’ they wouldn’t have any useful information to turn over.

As is often noted on pro-privacy resources, there is no single solution to managing your privacy online. In short, it comes down to how much effort you are willing to put into it. And, it seems that aside from hardcore privacy advocates, super paranoid people, and hackers and computer geeks who just get intrinsic pleasure out of reliving scenes from 90s hacker-thriller-action movies, people weigh more favorably the pleasure and convenience of free and user-friendly services like Facebook and Gmail than they weigh the tech-skills, patience, and time needed to put their online life on lockdown and cover up if not erase their digital trail.

From Online Surveillance to Content Blocking

When we take a look at countries most known for blocking and filtering internet content, we see names like: China, Iran, and Syria. But, a recent announcement from Britain’s prime minister David Cameron stated that within the UK, access to pornographic materials will be blocked unless individuals “opt out” of the filters that will automatically go into effect in about a year. If users do not opt out, the filters will automatically be applied to their internet service, including all devices on a home wifi network. Additionally, certain search terms will be blocked on search engines like Google and Bing.

Although technology already exists and is often used to limit access to such materials at the computer or network level (by parents or school administrators for example) there are concerns that these types of blanket restrictions can have negative implications for free speech.

In a previous blog entry I wrote about internet access and free speech regarding uprisings in countries and how governments block content. The most blocked categories of content are things deemed politically or religiously offensive and pornographic materials. It’s just unusual that a country like the U.K. takes such measures.

What Can You Do To Protect Your Privacy Online?

So, how much power do you have to protect your privacy? You can, surprisingly, do a lot if you’re willing to put the effort into it. But, it’s not as easy as some Facebook posts make it seem. The increased awareness of online privacy has also led to some misleading messaging. For example, memes regarding Facebook’s unveiling of its new Graph Search have gone viral. Perhaps you’ve seen or even posted statements like:

“FACEBOOK HAS CHANGED THEIR PRIVACY SETTINGS ONCE MORE!!! DUE TO THE NEW “GRAPH APP” ANYONE ON FACEBOOK (INCLUDING OTHER COUNTRIES) CAN SEE YOUR PICTURES, LIKES, AND COMMENTS.”

At best, those messages are misleading and lead people to waste some time by reposting them. At worst, they may lead people to click on links that are contaminated with viruses or lead you to unrelated services or apps that make false promises to protect your privacy.

If you want to take more action to ensure your privacy, I highly recommend listening to or reading the transcript from a NPR Science Friday episode.

Here are just some of the options discussed in the story by Jon Xavier, digital producer at the Silicon Valley Business Journal:

  • Web Browsing: Tor is "one of the most private ways you can browse the internet." It essentially bounces your connection and IP address through a bunch of servers so you can't be traced.
  • Search Engines: Startpage is "one of a few sort of private search engines that have sprung up." DuckDuckGo is another private search engine. "They don't track any information about you. They don't save your searches. They don't install any cookies."
  • Email: Enigmail is a plug-in for Thunderbird that encrypts all of your emails before they leave your computer. (you have to first set up your own email server to make this work)
  • Phone Calls And Texts: RedPhone is an app that can encrypt anything you send through a phone. TextSecure is a similar app. (you have to be calling or texting someone who also has the app for this to work)